Why is a type of rangeland grass called “the soul of the Hortobágy steppe” by a local herder deemed to be of low value by range scientists? In this paper I examine how herders see wild forage and fodder plants “through the mouths of the animals,” what kind of indicators they use, and how these indicators affect folk taxonomy. I focus on the Poaceae and Cyperaceae families (grasses, sedges, and their relatives), underrepresented taxa in ethnobiological studies. The Hortobágy is a salt steppe with low predictability of rain and pasture conditions. I conducted participatory field work and interviews with 92 herders. Herders have a special term for the consumable biomass of a pasture/meadow, “mező.” They distinguished between 28 types of hay and 30 types of mező and listed 34 plant folk taxa as important forage or fodder. I documented 13 different grazing-related indicators (plant traits), including nutritional value, interannual variation, and resprouting ability. The seasonal change in grazing value was a key indicator. Grazing value was an important, but not the only, factor in the folk taxonomy of grasses and sedges. Certain plant traits which are often used by ecologists, such as clonality, plant architecture, and belowground traits, were not used by herders. Herders and animals practiced reciprocal learning, with herders closely monitoring the feeding behavior of their animals. Herders used indicators to plan grazing routes and short-term transhumance movements. Herders provided their animals with the greatest care possible, even in this unpredictable environment. Folk indicators may give us a better understanding of pastoral grassland and livestock management and herders' “monitoring” activities, and help us maintain and develop sustainable land-use systems.
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Vol. 37 • No. 3